If anyone embodied La Rochelle’s character and determination to fight for his club’s cause in Saturday’s engrossing Heineken Champions Cup final it was surely their giant lock Will Skelton.
And there was no-one who encapsulated what it meant to the club from France’s Atlantic coast, in a port with a slightly smaller population than Galway City better than the Australian international who has twice been the thorn in Leinster’s side on the biggest day in the European club rugby calendar.
Skelton’s return from a calf injury had been signposted by head coach Ronan O’Gara. The second row’s huge 6ft 8ins, almost 19st body had been conspicuous by its absence from four games, three of them Champions Cup knockout ties as his team-mates reached the final without him. Yet when O’Gara intimated that the big man was nearing a comeback in the Top 14 clash with Stade Francais the weekend before last, the suggestion was met with a certain skepticism on Irish shores, just Rog playing mind games before the big day at Marseille’s Velodrome.
Perhaps it was just wishful thinking. After all this was a man who had come off the Saracens bench in Coventry in 2018-19 and blown holes through Munster’s defences in that season’s semi-final before starting the final in Newcastle and doing the same to Leinster.
So when he came through a quarter-hour off the bench against Stade Francais, alarm bells began to ring once more. And with good reason. Skelton put in a performance as immense as his frame, which he carried for the full 80 minutes as La Rochelle hammered down Leinster’s defences to grab a last-gasp try through replacement scrum-half Arthur Retiere to snatch an unlikely and unforeseen victory.
In the absence of two injured former All Blacks in Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Victor Vito, Skelton and his front-five colleagues took the fight to the tournament favourites, the Wallaby lock carrying 17 times and successfully crossing the gainline eight times for 46 metres. He gave his all and kept going to the last to see La Rochelle home as first-time champions of Europe a year on from losing both the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals to Toulouse.
“It means everything to this club, to me, to the boys. We're only a small town, you know, we're not supposed to be here,” Skelton told BT Sport.
“We're not supposed to be playing in these big games but we stepped up this year. It hurt last year, it hurt a lot but sometimes you've got to lose some to win one so it's a great feeling.
“I think we showed a lot of character there. We're a big team, we're a power team ,we're not the fittest team, like a few articles I read during the week, but it showed how much we care about this club, this town and for each other.” He was unsure how long the party would last back home in La Rochelle, there is still a return to the Top 14 final to negotiate, beginning this Sunday at Lyon, who celebrated Challenge Cup success last Friday night, when O’Gara’s team need to win the final game of the league season to be sure of a play-off spot.
“We've got Lyon next week so I don't know how long we're going to party,” Skelton said, “but it's going to be a good time in the Port.”